The University of Utah men’s basketball team has been through a lot, and Larry Krystkowiak knows it.
Multiple positive antigen tests on Nov. 13 kick-started what quickly turned into a program-wide COVID-19 outbreak. Nine players living between two off-campus houses got it, Krystkowiak himself had it, and the Utes’ originally scheduled Nov. 25 opener vs. Dixie State was canceled.
Late last week, Utah emerged from the outbreak, began to get back to business, and is now plowing forward with a truncated 24-game season, which began Thursday afternoon vs. Washington. Whatever anyone thought they might see from the Utes in an opener, against a conference opponent, coming off a virus stoppage, everyone was treated to more.
Utah’s opening salvo was, by any measurement, impressive. The Utes handled the Huskies’ 2-3 zone after a shaky first few minutes, they defended well, and they got something from a lot of different sources in overwhelming Washington, 76-62, inside an empty Huntsman Center.
The Huskies (0-3, 0-1 Pac-12) previously got hammered by No. 2 Baylor on Sunday, then lost by 15 to UC Riverside by 15 in Las Vegas.
“To actually have this come to fruition, it’s closing in on nine months since we last played, and the guys love to play, I love for the guys to be able to play,” said Krystkowiak, who opened his 10th season as Utes head coach. “We have to continue to stay safe with each other and continue to grow, but really proud of the outcome and the spirit on our basketball team.”
Getting the start after a tour de force to end last season, senior sharpshooter Alfonso Plummer finished with a team-high 21 points on 8-for-17 shooting and 4-for-11 from deep. All-Pac-12 wing Timmy Allen 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while combo guard Pelle Larsson showed well, finishing with eight points and seven assists in his collegiate debut.
Utah assumed control of this game in the first half, mostly thanks to its ability to probe and find holes for easy buckets vs. the Washington zone, but one particular portion of the second half wound up being decisive.
UTAH 76, WASHINGTON 62
• Opening its season following a COVID-19 outbreak, Utah rolled to a 76-62 win over Washington at the Huntsman Center
• Senior guard Alfonso Plummer, making his first career start, led the Utes with 21 points on 8-for-17 shooting.
• Freshman combo guard Pelle Larsson debuted well, finishing with eight points and seven assists.
An 18-0 run spanning nearly six minutes in the middle of the second half was the knockout blow in what was previously a game up for grabs. Plummer had eight of those 18 points. His 3-pointer from the right baseline was preceded by a Mikael Jantunen layup to cap the run, giving Utah its largest lead of the night, 69-46, with 7:23 to play.
How Plummer would play in the opener has long been a point of emphasis outside the program. The former JUCO All-American has become something of a folk hero among fans after he hit 11 3-pointers to finish with a career-high 35 points in a first-round loss to Oregon State at the Pac-12 Tournament last season.
“I always stay ready, I always work hard, always trying to get better,” Plummer said. “I feel like I’m way better on defense this year, but like I said, always trying to get better, always trying to help us get a win.”
Added Allen: “It feels good to get out there again, get the first one under our belt and get a ‘W.’ We have a long way to go as a team, but overall, it was fun to be out there again. We had a lot of energy on the bench and we were able to get a lot of guys in at the end of the game.”
Krystkowiak said postgame that the team will have off Friday after going “six, seven straight days.” Utah is back Tuesday for Idaho State at the Huntsman Center, while a meeting with BYU, critical for NCAA Tournament resume purposes, looms next Saturday afternoon in Provo.
Utah scrimmaged Weber State earlier this week
The Utes may have had limited practice time coming out of quarantine, but they did not go into Thursday’s opener unprepared.
A source told The Salt Lake Tribune Thursday that Utah conducted a scrimmage with Weber State on Monday in Salt Lake City.
The scrimmage was in the works while Utah was still unable to practice fully, a second source telling The Tribune that the Wildcats tested for seven consecutive days before scrimmaging Utah in an effort to abide by Pac-12 testing protocols.
A meeting between Utah and Weber State was likely beneficial for both. The Utes got a workout before playing a regular-season opponent, while the Wildcats have a 13-day gap between their Nov. 25 opener vs. Division II Adams State and a Dec. 8 visit from Division II Westminster. Weber’s Nov. 28 trip to Dixie State was canceled for COVID-related reasons.